A week in the life of a medieval female writer

You wake up one day. The year is 1405. You look out the Gothic window and you see the Paris cityscape. You try to say a few words in the language you know, but what comes out is a strange variety of French in a Venetian accent. You were born in Venice in 1364, your name is Christine de Pizan, you like Veneto wine and you’re a hell of a writer. You’re married, you have a son, but most of all you have an itch to write down your thoughts, as they cascade through your mind. You’ve had an idea for a story set in an allegorical city of ladies meant to criticize male-dominated society. You’re aware no woman before you has tackled this kind of subject before. You’re dizzy with excitement. You settle on the title: The Book of the City of Ladies. You’re pretty sure the story will be better than the title.

Docendo, discimus – by teaching we learn.  You prepare to embark on your writing project, but first you must instruct your son Jean, introducing him to the ideas you’ll develop in your books. Writing is just a notch on a large spectrum which includes learning and teaching, giving and receiving. It is a circle, where the author becomes a reader and then an author again. You know that, but you’d like to be reminded from time to time. Being a good person makes you a good mother as well. Nobody will remember this, but your son Jean will appreciate it.

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Chantilly, Musée Condé, 492

You sit down to write. The first draft goes so well that even your dog named Crenelle won’t budge. It all feels neat, the nib scratching away at the parchment, fingers hustling on the yet-uninvented keyboard. It feels good, you’re wearing your Sunday best, even though you don’t care. You have completed the first few pages, the universe feels in balance, you have achieved equanimity. Even your hairdo looks good, though there is no one to appreciate it.

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London, British Library, Harley MS 4431

You realise writing all the time may not be very productive. You remember those suffering from hypergraphy or compulsive writing and you say a prayer for them. Then you invite your friends for a show-and-tell of your latest book acquisitions, as you dare not share any of your own work. It’s work in progress, anyway.

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London, British Library, Add MS 20698

You go back to work, your back bending a bit more than last time you sat down. You are starting to panic that writing is not going as smoothly as before – you fear the approaching writer’s block. For you, it’s writer’s sword. You start imagining a broadsword hanging over your head, though there are moments when you think it is just outside your door, wielded by a fearsome female warrior. You keep writing lest the terminatoresse should get to you. You’re on the edge of your seat, scribbling furiously.

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London, British Library, Harley MS 4605

Despondency sets in. You throw away your headdress and sigh hopelessly over your hopeless opus. Your dog has abandoned you. Writing feels like ploughing with a team of oxen in the Mojave Desert. The walls of your room are white, but you are at such a low point that you are seeing them painted blue.

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Chantilly, Musée Condé, 494

You remember your faith and your hope is restored. You keep writing, while someone comes in to let you know that the books you ordered at the Champagne fair last summer have arrived. Finally, you can plagiarise some other authors in a purely medieval fashion. It is the 15th century, so no one gives a damn. Copyright has not been invented yet, and you can easily control your reputation because your pal is the wacko King Charles VI of France.

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Chantilly, Musée Condé, 493

You have been at your desk for days, writing with purpose and convinced that your books will still be read 500 years from now. Nevertheless, sleep overtakes you and you slumber carelessly over your book. Its wooden boards feel softer than a pillow because the words they enclose are sweeter to you than honey. You keep the door open for some fresh late-medieval air. There is a wind of change blowing from Flanders, a new kind of devotion in the air.

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London, British Library, Add MS 20698

It’s finished, done and dusted. You make the last changes to your work, checking the spelling and punctuation, even though you’re writing in the vernacular, which has no written rules. ‘If only male expectations of women were like the rules of medieval French – your language of choice – that is, flexible, open and transgressive’, you excogitate. You dedicate your volume of poems to Isabeau of Bavaria, who’s attended too many Oktoberfest celebrations to fully appreciate your poetic gift. You find her obnoxious, so self-absorbed that she’s asked all ladies in waiting to wear the same headdress as herself. You don’t like sucking up to her, so you are reluctant to offer her the book. You remember that she’s sponsored you, and you feel better about it.

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London, British Library, Harley MS 4431

You go home exhausted from writing and from securing funding for your next literary project. You fall asleep again. This time you have a strange dream. You see yourself in a medieval classroom teaching a group of obedient male students of all ages and occupations. They find you fascinating, brilliant and courageous. They listen to your every word as though it were Scripture. Where you see yourself as a woman, they see you as a master, an authority on the subject at hand, a great mind worthy of emulation. You feel there’s something wrong with this vision – you have a hunch that half a millennium later, this won’t be the case. You have a hunch that men will still find it strange to see you in a seat of authority. Your vision breaks down and you wake up. It was only a dream.

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London, British Library, Harley 4431

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